Dustin and Lisa Sypher share a love for the creative arts. The 20-year couple that met in the halls of the University of Kansas (KU) Art History Department have been creating a unique brand of mixed media paintings and striking iron-work from their barn in Coldwater for the past five years. While the prolific couple has recently relocated to Pratt, they say their time amongst the rattlesnakes and sorghum fields has made an indelible impression on their work, and their lives.
“I was going to get my master’s degree in art and had this chance to work at an actual blacksmith’s shop,” said Dustin. “When the tornado happened, it just kind of drew me back here. I spent a lot of time in Greensburg growing up, so there was a connection for me.”
Working in a Carbondale, Colo. blacksmithing shop, creating fine-iron work for customers in Aspen, Dustin returned to Kiowa County following the May 4, 2007 tornado to volunteer with the clean up.
His family has a long history in Kiowa County.
Making the cross-country trek from Kentucky, his great great grandfather settled a corner plot in what was then a newly incorporated Mullinville. His great grandfather Boone Pedigo was five years old when the family came to Kiowa County and became a successful blacksmith and well digger.
“You have to wonder what it was like leaving Kentucky and showing up out here,” said Sypher. “They probably were looking around and thinking ‘what the heck.’”
The flat, dusty plains of southwestern Kansas would change quickly as homesteading farmers claimed land and began planting acres of new crops. Fresh water was a necessity and Sypher says his relatives were proud to have built many of the wells and windmills used by early settlers.
Mullinville was once known as “the City of Windmills,” and boasted to have had more windmills than any other town in Kansas.
His grandparents “Buster” and Ovie (Pedigo) Sypher were both Mullinville natives. His father Charles was born in Mullinville, though he later moved the family to Ottawa after serving in the military.
His family still owns their original farmstead at the end of Cherry Street, though the house is long gone.
The family believes a Pedigo drilled the pilot hole for a new well in the center of Greensburg, now known as “The Big Well.”
“I spoke to one of my cousins about it at a funeral. The story goes that they couldn’t find water at first, but moved the bit a few degrees and hit water,” Dustin recalled. “It filled up so fast that some of the well workers almost drown.”
Page 2 of 4 - After graduating from Ottawa High School he took to sculpting, eventually earning his degree in sculpture from KU. He found his way to iron and blacksmithing through experimentation and a need to continue doing art, while paying the bills.
“I kept asking myself ‘what kind of job can you get with an art degree?’ I knew it was going to be a tough road. My professors were giving me books about blacksmithing. Michael Kruger, an associate professor of art at KU, introduced me to a friend that was a blacksmith. We went into this neighborhood where the houses were like eight feet apart from each other and this guy had a blacksmithing shop in his basement.”
When he saw an ornamental gate, adorned with “found” iron and reclaimed implements, it was like a light bulb went off, he said.
“It hit me, there was a way to be creative and get paid for it. From there I started reading books about blacksmithing. There are no real blacksmithing classes, per se. I saw an avenue making a living doing ornamental ironwork. I found workshops, and some instruction and started to collect tools.”
Sypher collects scrap iron, often from abandoned farmsteads, and creates a variety of ironwork.
He has created two distinguished pieces in Greensburg, a scrap iron bench that sits outside of the 5.4.7 Art Center, a project he did with the now-defunct Green Club, and a banister inside the Greensburg GreenTown Silo Home, made using reclaimed iron from the Schmidt Farm.
One of his favorite pieces is “Entwined,” commissioned in memory of Mullinville farmers Bob and Evelyn Neier, the massive scrap iron fence made from pre-1940’s farm equipment is part of the Downing Children’s Garden at the Wichita Botanica.
“The beauty of that fence is when an 80-year-old man sits down, looking at that fence, he’ll see a piece that reminds him of something from his past. He’ll start talking about it and even though he’s talking about “art” he doesn’t realize he’s talking about art. That same guy won’t ever go into an art gallery because it’s too frou-frou.”
The necessity of creating “practical artwork” isn’t lost on Sypher, who acknowledges the stigma “art” can carry in conservative farming communities.
“I’m caught between both worlds,” he said. “They call me a blacksmith but they won’t acknowledge the art side of it. The art gallery won’t acknowledge the blacksmith side. It’s tough being an artist out here. With fine ironwork, there is a stigma that only rich people can have it in their home. It’s ‘too fancy.’ But if I can take grandpa’s iron from his tractor and incorporate it into a railing, it becomes a memorial.”
Page 3 of 4 - Dustin and his wife Lisa moved to nearby Coldwater and spent five years working from an old barn on “Parkings Hill,” just inside the Comanche County line.
Unceremoniously deemed “the isolation tank” by good friend and photographer Larry Schwarm, the Sypher’s say they may have done some of their most prolific work while battling the ornery rattlesnakes and chronic boredom that came with Great Plains living.
Dustin produced nearly 4,000 iron leaves for a shop in Colorado. He refined his work, expanding into massive aviary pieces and intricate tabletop totems.
He showed his work in galleries across the state and took commissions wherever he could find them. “The amount of work I did down there was amazing,” he said. “I still kind of shake my head thinking about how much work I did down there.”
Lisa, who earned duel degrees from KU including a B.A. in early childhood development, began producing “free-form” artwork inspired by the teachings of Oregon artist/author Flora Bowley.
“Visual arts are healing just like music,” she said. “For me it was a way to try and connect with some distant parts of myself. I did traditional stuff for a long time and it wasn’t very good. I never thought I could draw. Anytime I would draw, anything resembling a picture, it would freak me out. It still does.”
Blind in one eye since birth, the Wichita native said post-traumatic stress syndrome and anorexia caused by a “wild childhood,” stymied her own creative impulses, though she spent time working in the art history department at KU and surrounded herself with creative types.
“I never really studied visual arts because it scared me,” she said. “I backed away from it. I was going to study art history at KU. I’ve always liked visual arts, but coming from Wichita, no one every really talked about art. I went to KU and started working in the art department and took a lot of art history classes.”
She said the isolation of living in Coldwater pushed her towards painting.
“I don’t think I would have found my work if I hadn’t lived there.”
While trying to entertain a visiting friend, she broke out a set of paints and found inspiration.
“If I had lived in the city I would have been out and about. Sometimes you need to just sit and find it. I think my work is kind of my reward for sitting out there for 5 ½ years.
An english professor told me if I wanted to be a good writer I needed to live like I was in a prison block. I needed to sit down with my work. Be quiet and do it. There are a lot of great artists in the world, but if they don’t sit down and do it, it’ll never get it done. We always say that if we had been in Lawrence we never would have found it. We would have been in our little bubble and just gone on with our lives.“
Page 4 of 4 - Lisa’s work is mixed-media free flowing paintings. She adds layers upon layers until a picture emerges.
She subscribes to Bolwey’s artistic approach where “work is created through a unique process of spontaneously layering free flowing color and mark-making with carefully rendered organic forms.”
“Sometimes I think it is an advantage for her,” said Dustin commenting on her partial blindness. “She has no depth perception. When she looks at things they are already flat.”
“It sure is fun,” said Lisa. “I think it is empowering to people who don’t think they are artists. The more people that can be artists, the better.”
The Syphers said goodbye to their Coldwater farmhouse nearly two months ago and moved to Pratt.
Dustin has moved into a new studio set back from the highway. His new shop, while absent of the worn, rustic look of his Coldwater farmhouse is well suited to his needs.
He brought along all of his tools and machinery, some once owned by his Mullinville blacksmithing decedents.
He proudly shows off a pair of hand-hammered iron rings, a gift his great grandfather had given to his gymnast wife.
“Most of my work goes to Wichita. We did a lot of driving back and forth,” he said. “We’d get to Pratt and we’d say ‘Ok another hour.’ Then we’d get to Greensburg and ‘oh it’s another half-hour.’ In Pratt we’re an hour away, it makes sense for us.”
The Syphers have work on display across Kansas and the mid-west.
Dustin has work on display in Alva, Okla., Hays and at his hometown art center in Ottowa. He has a show at the Meade Gallery in June, which he’ll share with Lisa, and a show at the Carnahan Art Center in September.
Lisa’s work is current on display inside a Yoga Studio in Wichita. She previously had a showing at Origin’s Coffee House in Haviland and will have some pieces on display at the KU Medical Center. You can see more of their work at TallGrassForge.com
A Kiowa County Creative is a new series exploring the diverse and eclectic artists in Kiowa County. This multi-part series will focus on current and former artists from Kiowa County. Do you know a Kiowa County artist? Send us an email with your suggestion.